The Archimedean Point
Archimedes (c. 287-211 BCE) was perhaps the most notable mathematician and inventor in ancient Greece. He lived most of his life in Syracuse on the island of Sicily, then a colony of Greece.
Archimedes is reputed to have said, “Give me a place to stand, a fulcrum, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”
As depicted here, he seems to be doing just that. But, where is that place for him to stand outside of the world he is moving? Must he actually be somehow standing in midair?
That place has become known as an Archimedean point. It is a hypothetical point from which we can perceive the subject of our inquiry. It is where we stand, removed from the object of our observation, seeing how it is related to every other thing, yet remaining independent of them. As such, we are viewing our subject in its entirety with pure objectivity, a power great enough to move the world, just as the metaphorical lever of Archimedes shown here.
Whether we can ever achieve the power of such pure objectivity has been debated over the millennia. One of the more succinct comments on this question comes from the founder of the Skeptic Society, Michael Shermer – “We can no more separate our theories and concepts from our data and percepts than we can find a true Archimedean point—a god’s-eye view—of ourselves and our world.”
There is something worse than failing to achieve objectivity. It occurs every time we [resume reading here] believe we embody the pure objectivity of the Archimedean point. At such times, rather than having “removed” ourselves to an Archimedean point, we are just making yet another attempt at standing in midair.
Bias, Prejudice & Cognitive Bias
The reason we do not occupy an Archimedean point is our bias. Let me hasten to add, I am not referring to prejudice. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, for our purposes, they are two distinctly different things.
Bias versus Prejudice
Here, bias is a tendency to form a belief or pursue a pattern of action based upon prior experience that may favorably predispose us to certain things or render us unalterably opposed to other things. For example:
- if a coach complimented our prowess on the field of play as a young child, years later we might have been more inclined toward competing for a position on our highschool team, or
- if we were introduced to brussels sprouts as our first vegetable, we might pass on all other vegetables always, without even tasting them.
Without experience we would be a blank slate every morning, unable to function as competent, informed adults. Bias is a byproduct of such experience. It can also be somewhat of a useful shortcut, as we shall see. Efficiency notwithstanding, operating with wholly unrecognized biases can become problematic.
In contrast to bias as described above, the distinctive characteristic of prejudice is a particular hostility directed toward certain individuals based upon their identification as members of a given ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
Cognitive bias is a limitation in our ability to think objectively. The limitation arises from the structure of our brains requiring more time or more energy to function than is feasible under the circumstances at the moment. So, to save time or energy or both a work-around is required. The work-around frees the time/energy required to keep us safe and healthy, but this comes at a cost. The cost is limitations or errors in how we perceive ourselves and the world around us in ways that are less than purely objective due to any one of many known cognitive biases.
All of this occurs at the intersection of the demands of our environment and the processing capacity of our brains, as described below:
- Volume Of Information
- We can neither process nor retain all the information in our environment. Our brains must be facile at filtering to select information that is most likely to be most useful.
- Degree Of Comprehension.
- The information flow is often less signal than noise. So, we have access to less than the full picture, and what we do receive is somewhat distorted. To make sense of it, we must identify patterns, connect dots, and fill in blanks using inferences from what we think we already know or remember.
- Urgency For Action
- Any piece of information could range in importance from influencing our likelihood of sheer survival to influencing our economic viability or our self-image to affecting our loved ones to addressing the purely frivolous. So, we need to decide what degree of attention each information update requires, what action, if any, must be executed, and what this portends for the future. Also, we need to accomplish all of this before receiving more new information and repeating the cycle.
- Uncertainties Around Retention
- We can only store what we absolutely need to know. Thus, broad themes or outlines are better than too many specific details because the generalized requires less storage room and less recall time than the highly specified. This becomes our memory reserve to drive our filtering and to inform our comprehension, referred to above.
Our cognitive biases are adaptations in response to all of these challenges. So, starting with this posting, and continuing periodically, we are going to have a look at how each cognitive bias functions as a required work-around, and how we can adapt to the particular distortions it inevitably produces.
Observational Selection Bias
If you have ever purchased a new automobile, whether new from the assembly line or simply new to you, you probably have noticed you began seeing other cars just like it all over the place. What you were experiencing was observational selection bias. The result is a seeming increase in the frequency of vehicles like yours that you would not have noticed before purchasing your new automobile.
In reality, the number of such cars has not increased. What has increased is the attention those cars garner when your brain begins noticing them instead of filtering them out of your awareness as not useful and thus irrelevant.
Vehicles similar to yours have become relevant because they now are part of a pattern that includes your new automobile. Our brains constantly search for patterns. If something is part of a pattern, it is more likely to be useful. If it could be useful, it is worthy of attention and retention in our limited storage capacity. If it isn’t part of a pattern, it probably is neither useful nor worthy of even our fleeting attention. So, to us it is invisible.
Since we are awash in a constant flow of information daily, it is fairly common to encounter a second instance of a particular piece of information, or related information, over a relatively brief period. That second encounter establishes the beginning of a sequence, which our brain notices and rewards by elevating the priority of the new information to keep track of it in anticipation of a pattern that may emerge. If a pattern does indeed emerge, it is elevated to our conscious attention. This scanning, evaluation, and communication is handled by our brain’s capacity for non-conscious cognition that we addressed in an earlier posting, Looking Without Seeing…Seeing Without Looking.
Distortions Resulting From Cognitive Biases
Overlooking Information. Sometimes we act without considering pertinent information because it never arose to our conscious awareness. Meanwhile, others may be aware of that information and act accordingly since in their circumstances it wasn’t screened out of their consciousness. Of course, they may be unaware of yet other information whose recognition we take for granted.
Underestimating Coincidence. We tend to underestimate the frequency of pure coincidence. This leads to erroneously attributing causes to events that are truly random. That can evoke a feeling of witnessing destiny unfolding. That is probably inconsequential if the matter involves a surprise at receiving a phone call from an old friend you hadn’t heard from in years but had thought of just the day before. It may be another matter altogether if you choose to avoid vaccinating your children after hearing a celebrity report relating a child being vaccinated and being diagnosed with autism, as we addressed in an earlier posting, Empirically Yours.
Intuition. Because it consumes relatively little time or energy, relying on intuition is a preferred automatic response of our brain. Considering the definition of intuition as “a thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning,” [emphasis added] it is easy to understand how we are so often lead astray by this bias.
The point here is not to extinguish intuition, even if that were an option. Rather, it is to recognize that intuition should not be our sole tool automatically applied 100% of the time in all circumstances. It would be preferable to try slowing down a bit at least to consider the applicability of conscious reasoning before acting.
While we are not all scientists since we know we are burdened by cognitive biases, we could benefit from at least understanding, if not emulating, their approach to empirical proof, when applicable, as described in our earlier posting, Empirically Yours.
(More Cognitive Biases To Follow Periodically)